Review: The Banshees of Inisherin

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Banshees posterI had expected comedy. Maybe not laugh-aloud, rib-splitting stuff. Not slapstick and pratfalls. But humour of the British sort. Oscar-Wilde-ish witty dialogue. Banter like that from Fry and Laurie. Joycean innuendo and joie-de-vivre. And a resolution that brought an appropriate closure to the end. Instead, what I got was a Greek tragedy of unresolved pathos, violence, poverty, and misery that left the story — and audience —hanging. Not what the trailers of The Banshees of Inisherin had led me to expect.

One Guardian review called it a “flawless tragicomedy of male friendship gone sour.” I couldn’t make out the comedy in the tragicomedy part. A different Guardian review described it more realistically as “a macabre black comedy of toxic male pride and wounded male feelings, a shaggy-dog story of wretchedness and a dance of death between aggression and self-harm.” I’m still not convinced about the “comedy” part fitting there. But the toxic and hurt male feelings, and wretchedness sure fit my perspective on the movie.

The Banshees of Inisherin is a 2022 film starring Colin Farrell as Pádraic, Brendan Gleeson as Colm (more properly, the confusing: ColmSonnyLarry), and Kerry Condon as Pádraic’s sister, Siobhán. It was written and directed by Martin McDonagh. The story is set on a small, bleak rural island off the west coast of Ireland during the final year of the Irish Civil War (1923). Most of the scenes take place in or around a pair of cottages where each of the two men live. Other scenes take place along the road between them, in the local pub, and a few in the small village itself. The overall feeling is one of desolation, isolation, and bleakness. This works well for the Britbox police-procedural series, Shetland and Vera, but less so for this film. Bucolic as it seems, the set emphasizes the distances between people.

Of minor note, the small, unadorned cottages are barely above survival-level lodgings. No indoor plumbing, no washrooms, a minimal kitchen in one (the same one where the miniature donkey comes indoors to visit)… they are as dreary as the landscape, and intellectually arid except for the gramophone in Colm’s and the very few books owned by Pádraic’s sister. In my youth, I camped in less squalid sites.

Without giving anything away, it’s the story of the relationship between two former friends. whose friendship ends abruptly and without apparent reason, when Colm decides he no longer wants to spend his time wasting away in the pub with Pádraic, whose conversation is largely about the behaviour and feces of his pet miniature donkey. Instead, Colm wants to spend his time writing and developing his music, hoping to leave behind something more meaningful than that. But Colm doesn’t come across as a musical genius focused on creating his masterpiece, but rather as an erratic, crusty eccentric with pretensions of intellectualism, who seems fully at ease communing with others, just not his former friend. Pádraic is the opposite, being about as anti-intellectual and anti-literate as possible.

The rest of the story is about how Pádraic tries to regain Colm’s friendship through increasingly desperate and pathetic means, while Colm tries to convince him to leave him the hell alone. And he does it in graphically violent and bloody ways but to himself, not to Pádraic. As the film progresses the two become competitors; Colm to try and get further apart, Pádraic to try and get closer again. Along the way, Colm creates his musical work, which, while we don’t get to hear in its entirety, seems like a pleasant folk ditty, but is hardly a Mozartian or Debussian masterwork.

We don’t get a lot of background on either men, nor does anything explain their previous closeness or why such chalk-and-cheese characters would become close in the first place. Perhaps the isolation and small populace brought them together through a simple lack of choices in companionship. By the time we see them, it’s difficult to fathom why or how they ever became close in the first place.

In supporting roles are the miniature donkey and Colm’s dog, as well as an incestuous, boozing policeman and his abused, developmentally-challenged son, a bumbling but well-meaning bartender, and Pádraic’s sister (the only one in the cast with any pretensions to actual literacy, intellectualism, and relatable ambition to get the hell off the island). Plus there’s an old, Macbethian crone who everyone grants mystical, predictive powers to, and a few busybodies in the town. The cast is small, with most of the screen time taken up by the three main characters, and even then the dialogue is strained and parsimonious.

Come the end of the film, the hoped-for conclusion to give us closure, we were instead left with a feeling that perhaps we should slit our own wrists to complement the dismal emotions of angst and hopelessness the final scene left us with. It almost felt like the sort of story Kafka would have written had he turned his pen to Ireland.

Despite the brilliant photography and the superb cast, and despite the accolades from critics who, I suspect, are as seriously befuddled in their thinking as Pádraic, I cannot recommend The Banshees of Inisherin except as a sort of self-flagellation for close to two hours.

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